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Women have worked as computer programmers since the dawn of the information technology era. The world is aware of that, at the latest ever since the release of the Hollywood film “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three African-American female mathematicians who worked on the Mercury and Apollo programs at NASA.
Women Who Shaped Computer Science
But the history of information technology (IT) isn’t just marked by the appearance of all-female teams of coders – who were also called “computresses” back in the day – who ran calculations based on the work of engineers who were typically male. There were also women who were responsible for many of the seminal achievements in the field of IT. Without trailblazers like Ada Lovelace (the author of the first computer program), Frances E. Allen (the first female IBM Fellow and the first woman to win the Turing Award), Grace Hopper (the creator of the first compiler), and Margaret Hamilton (listen to the podcast), much of what we benefit from in our digital world wouldn’t exist today.
Women in IT Today, Women in IT at SIX
And where are women in IT today? They are present in the sector, but not in particularly large numbers, and their presence is not visible. Our society continues to think in old role stereotypes and does too little to encourage girls and young women to take up a technical profession. But in reality, women have a world of opportunities awaiting them in the IT sector, as three female employees of SIX – Erika, Marion, and Ursula – can testify.
Learning Coding as a Career Switcher
All three women are career switchers who learned how to code around 40 years ago during a three-month basic-training course at the former Swissair airline company (today called Swiss). They came to IT by happenstance. After having scratched out a living as an au pair or a secretary after graduating from high school, they applied for an administrative job at Swissair. The airline at that time, though, was also looking for computer programmers and invited the women to take an aptitude test. All three passed the test and thus qualified to attend the basic-training course on assembly-language programming. They quickly discovered that juggling bits and bytes fascinated them and was exactly the right line of work for them.
IT: Versatile and Flexible Job Profiles
After the grounding of Swissair in 2001, Erika and Ursula transferred directly to SIX (Telekurs at that time) as software engineers. Erika appreciates the versatility of her profession: “Each of my assignments is a brand-new task because if that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t have to do any coding. It never gets boring.” Ursula cites another advantage of her profession: flexibility. “I can do my job also remotely from my home,” she says, “and I’m free to organize my time as I wish. That suits me to a tee. I tend to be a late riser in the morning, but occasionally I’m productive at night. And why not get my work done on a rainy Sunday instead of on a sunny workday?”
Computer Science Is Well Suited for All Career Stages
After a couple of detour stops at HP and Swiss, Marion as well ended up joining SIX in November 2020. At the age of 54, she got an opportunity to work together with her former colleagues and to apply her knowledge and expertise as an IBM mainframe software developer to the financial sector. “So, I have come full circle now,” she says. “Toward the end of my professional career, I’ve gone back to doing exactly the work that I find enormously enjoyable. And I learn something new every day because I’m a newcomer to the financial sector.”
IT Needs New (Role Model) Images
Women currently make up around 14% of the IT staff at SIX. In the interests of diversity, it is a matter of great importance for SIX to recruit more women to professions in IT. SIX therefore is earnestly involved in a number of initiatives including an internship program for career switchers in collaboration with TechFAce. Erika, Ursula, Marion, and their stories act as role models here, but even more are needed. Change needs to take place in people’s minds, where many prejudices still prevail. Computer scientists, for example, rarely resemble the image of a nerd, and sometimes they aren’t even computer freaks, as Ursula knows from her own experience: “Computers never became a hobby of mine. I prefer to read and do gardening in my free time.”
Creating Points of Contact with IT
Some rethinking is needed among business executives, IT professionals, girls and women themselves and their private-life spheres, and especially among educational institutions. Girls still struggle to develop a taste for STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and, for example, have a hard time envisaging doing an IT apprenticeship at SIX. There are hardly any role models and not enough points of contact with IT during the stage of choosing a profession, though sometimes providing a gateway to IT would be so easy and even almost playful, as the example of Erika proves. “I love puzzles – simply anything that has to do with mathematics and logic. That’s exactly what computer science is,” she says.
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